Architecture rich at Chicago Cultural Center

One of Chicago’s finest architectural gems provides visitors with a cheap way to sample the city’s history, art, music, dance, films and drama.

The Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., has been nicknamed the “People’s Palace” because there is no admission for most exhibits and events. Mayor Richard Daly dedicated the building in 1991 as “a place where the arts would be celebrated free of charge and accessible to all,” and more than 1,000 programs are presented annually.

This was the city’s first public library, completed in 1897 for almost $2 million. Today, its Tiffany stained-glass dome – at 38 feet, the world’s largest – alone is worth around $35 million.

Despite its impressive pillars, mosaics, brass, glass and marble, it is easy to ignore the Cultural Center because of the city’s more well-known and high-profile institutions – the Field Museum, Art Institute and Shubert Theatre being among them.

My first exposure was as a tourist seeking a bus map. One of the city’s information centers is here, too, at 77 E. Randolph St., and I took a shortcut through the block-wide building, to stay out of the wind.

Since I was in Chicago to do other things, I simply scurried past the art galleries and below the applause that followed a stream of lively Celtic music.

The next morning, I was back, because of a popular photo exhibit that was nearby. I had arrived too early and sought refuge from the cold by wandering into the Cultural Center. I had a massive, second-story ballroom to myself and was quite content to perch on a windowsill, sip coffee and watch the world below.

This fall, I made the building a priority instead of an incidental stop and was there for hours. The visit began with a free “Lunch Break” concert of chamber music. It ended with a free evening performance of “Too Good to be True,” a lesser-known George Bernard Shaw play put on by ShawChicago.

The atmosphere? Informal. The quality? Far beyond what you’d expect from routinely free performances. The musicians were four Chicago Symphony Orchestra performers. Eight of the play’s 10-person cast were Actors’ Equity Association members, and the director had worked on Broadway.

Between the music and drama, there was art – lots of it, including a show by David Plowden, whose black-and-white photography of rural and industrial life included several striking Wisconsin images. Coal loading in Superior. A mall in Beaver Dam. Empty cow stanchions in a barn near Brodhead. The modest Odd Fellows Lodge in Shullsburg.

Several of the exhibits will change with the start of the new year. Newcomers will include:

“Teddy Bears at Home in Chicago” – A celebration, with photos and artifacts, of the stuffed animal’s 100th anniversary. Open Jan. 18 to March 23.

“Leon Golub: Works Since 1947” – The contemporary political artist has Chicago roots, and this show is primarily of his paintings. Open Jan. 18 to March 30.

This month also marks the start of “Chicago Winter Delights,” special-theme weekends that involve many city venues and include several free or ticket-required Cultural Center events.

Themes include “Stir It Up,” a celebration of food, (Jan. 9-12); “Paint the Town Blues,”as in the musical genre, (Jan. 16-19); “Play it Cool Jazz” (Jan. 23-26); and “Embrace Opera” (Jan. 30-Feb. 2).

There are eight exhibit spaces at the Cultural Center, two concert halls, two theaters, a café with cabaret performance space, a dance studio and the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

The latter is a great collection of radio and television memorabilia, emphasizing but not limited to Chicago personalities. It is an interactive area that has the potential to entertain both children and adults.

There are TV clips from great moments in sports history. Visitors can call a half-inning of a baseball game, or become a news commentator. The 40-year history of Bozo the Clown on WGN-TV gets attention here, as does Jack Brickhouse, voice of the Chicago Cubs and White Sox for about the same amount of time.

There are bios and radio clips for each inductee in the Radio Hall of Fame, from Gary Owens and Wolfman Jack to Milwaukee’s Bob Uecker, Other notable sound bytes – like the announcement of the Pearl Harbor attack – have a nostalgic backdrop, like a 1940s living room or kitchen setting.

Museum admission is free, but there also is a public archives of television and radio programming, for which admission is a whopping $3. In the archives are 13,000 television programs, 4,000 radio programs, 11,000 television commercials and 4,500 newscasts.

The museum will double its size to 30,000 square feet and move into a new building, at State and Kinzie streets (near Harey Carey’s Restaurant), in 2004. For more, call (312) 629-6000 or go to www.museum.tv or www.radiohof.org.

For more information about the Cultural Center, call (312) 744-6630, (312) 346-3278 or go to www.cityofchicago.org/Tour/CulturalCenter/. The building is closed on holidays.